Financial strain, social pressure, and countless to-dos make the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s the most stressful time of year, according to numerous surveys. Holidays may sometimes be painful reminders of those we’ve lost. And though many look forward to coming home for the holidays, visiting old friends and family, might make you feel like you’re reliving a past role that you’ve moved on from. Finally, celebratory eating, drinking, and not sleeping can disrupt our routines and make it hard to handle the excitement.
Catherine Mogil, PsyD, a psychologist and assistant clinical professor at the University of California, Los Angeles’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, confirms that the holidays can bring grief, trauma, and stress. Here are five mental health tips for the holidays that Dr. Mogil and other professionals suggest.
Leave perfectionism behind
Whether you’re hoping your travels go smoothly, worrying about what to get Grandma, or trying to make a family-sized eggnog, it’s easy to get caught up in executing the perfect holiday celebration. But idealizing might lead to disappointment.
No matter your holiday hosting experience, mishaps are inevitable. Be kind to yourself instead of being quick to judge your shortcomings, and recognize that whatever you’re doing is enough.
Self-compassion boosts stress resilience and optimism regarding perceived setbacks. “Give yourself the grace to not have everything be perfect,” Dr. Mogil says.
Stick with some of your routines
Humans benefit from routines. Research reveals that consistent, healthy habits—like eating well, exercising, and getting enough sleep—reduce stress, improve mental health, and make our lives more meaningful. When you eat and drink more during the holidays, it’s easy to lose track, which might disrupt your biological clock (sleep-wake cycle) and other essential bodily functions. Dr. Mogil explains, “Our normal schedules… are very stabilizing for our stress levels.”
It’s okay to indulge, but it’s good to try and maintain at least some routines and healthy behaviors. David Spiegel, MD, assistant chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and director of the Center on Stress and Health at Stanford University, says that rest and nutrition make our stress response systems more flexible. Try to get at least seven hours of sleep, limit alcohol, and balance sugary goodies with colorful fruits and veggies.
Pay attention to the positives
Since minor (and at times major) anxieties tend to pile up during the holidays, it’s important to be intentional about acknowledging the positives. Dr. Mogil suggests thinking about three things—big or small, new or old—that you’re grateful for every morning. You’ll appreciate it: Gratitude increases happiness and stress resilience, according to research.
Think about what makes you happy—your comfy bed, a cuddly pet, a nice encounter with someone else, or cherished memories with loved ones. “Try as best as you can to savor those good moments,” Dr. Mogil says—they can help you feel balanced.
Find ways to be of service
Helping others when you need help may seem contradictory, yet some research suggests that kindness might boost our moods. There’s no right or wrong way to accomplish this: For example, you can volunteer in a food kitchen on Christmas Day. If this sounds like a big ask and you simply know you don’t have the bandwidth, you can give back in smaller, more manageable ways.
Hold the door for a stranger, let someone go in front of you in traffic, or buy a neighbor coffee. Dr. Mogil argues that helping others and doing good in the world can stimulate dopamine.
Take breaks from all the action
Check in with yourself over the holiday season and assess your stress levels. Step back for a while if you’re feeling overwhelmed or like others are violating your limits.
Dr. Mogil suggests scheduling time for an activity that will allow you to decompress and order your thoughts. Excuse yourself to do something restorative or refreshing, like going for a jog or walk, taking (or pretending to take) a nap, reading a book, or listening to a favorite podcast. If that isn’t possible, spend a few extra minutes in the shower or do some deep breathing exercises while getting ready.